CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Understated Appeal of Ben Monder

The veteran guitarist, who has played with some of the biggest names in jazz and pop, melds his interests on his latest album, Day After Day

Ben Monder (photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

Standard Time

Monder’s previous eight albums have been dominated by his own compositions, but he has spent a great deal of his musical life on stage playing standards. For a while now, he has planned to do an album to reflect that.

“I’d always wanted to do an album of covers. It’s the way we all learn to play—learning what your voice is by playing the same standards that everyone else does and hearing how you do them differently. It was a big part of my life for a long time. For the last 10 or 12 years, I started collecting some of these pop tunes and seeing which ones worked for improvisation.”

At one point, he thought his standards album would be a collaboration with Paul Motian, the drummer who had hired the guitarist for his Electric Bebop Band in 2001. The two men recorded a bunch of covers and a few improvisations in 2010. But Monder wasn’t happy with his playing, and before he could go back into the studio, Motian died, in 2011.

The guitarist salvaged one of the standards (Richard Rodgers’ “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”) and one of the improvs, supplemented it with two solo-guitar tracks, two duets with drummer Andrew Cyrille, and two trio numbers with Cyrille and keyboardist Pete Rende. Monder released the results as his 2015 album Amorphae.

He tried the standards approach again with a trio that featured his longtime drummer Ted Poor and his current bassist Matt Brewer. When Monder had conducted a 2002 clinic at the Eastman School of Music, he’d been so knocked out by a student drummer that he hired the kid for a gig. That was Poor, and they played together for years. More recently, Brewer has been a steady presence in Monder’s trio.

“Ted has always played my music perfectly without me telling him anything,” Monder says. “I also like the simple way he interprets the pop tunes. Matt’s been doing trio gigs with me for a couple of years. He has unlimited ability on his instrument, and he knows intuitively what to play behind me. The three of us did a couple of gigs before the recording, but this hasn’t been a longstanding trio, because Ted moved to Seattle a few years ago. Nonetheless, this was the trio I wanted for this project.”

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“Ben’s harmonic language can be dense and mysterious,” Brewer says, “but it always remains beautiful. His guitar playing has an incredible level of virtuosity, but he applies it in ways that are inventive and wholly unique to him—both the nearly impossible chord voicings and the incredible right-hand technique.”

They recorded a bunch of tunes, but Monder was worried that he didn’t have enough acceptable tracks for a full album. So he started recording some solo arrangements of standards to supplement the trio tunes. Before he knew it, he had too many keeper takes for a single album. His co-producer Patrick Zimmerli convinced Monder to release the project as a two-CD set with seven solo-guitar tracks on the first disc and eight trio numbers on the second.

Though the solo disc is dominated by American Songbook standards, the trio disc is devoted to pop and rock tunes associated with the Beatles, Bread, the Carpenters, Badfinger, and others. Most of the album was recorded on electric guitar, Monder’s primary instrument, but Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dust” were recorded on acoustic.

“I really love my acoustic guitar, a Martin 0-18 from 1936,” Monder says, “and I don’t want to put it away, which would be easy to do, so I keep writing for it. One thing I like about the acoustic is I don’t play it that well. So I don’t use a pick and keep it simple, and I like that restriction.”

The trio disc opens with “Galveston,” written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell. Monder’s arrangement begins with a twangy, bouncy motif, echoing the hit single’s vocal line rather than its guitar part. After the first bridge, however, Monder starts subbing his own melodic detours for Webb’s well-worn highway. The backroads of the trio’s variations may travel over some steep slopes and hairpin turns, with rough patches of pavement reflected in the increasingly noisy guitar tone, but the alternate routes always parallel the interstate and keep it close at hand.

“Ben and I both have a real love for Jimmy Webb’s music,” says Brewer. “I was born in Oklahoma City, and my dad played with Leon Russell for a bit, so that time and place are musically meaningful for me. When playing standards, the challenge is to not sound like a mediocre cover band nor play so abstractly that nobody knows what song you’re doing. The middle ground is a place where the song is respected but played from your viewpoint.” 

“I was looking for tunes with interesting harmonies and unusual forms,” Monder says, “because those are more fun to improvise on. If I had a deep, childhood connection with a tune, that made it more appealing. ‘Just Like a Woman,’ for example, is a tune I’d been listening to for a long time. I didn’t hear the Dylan version till recently, but I loved the Joe Cocker version and a while later the Roberta Flack version. I’ve been listening to the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ since I was a little kid and I’ve always loved ‘Long, Long, Long.’”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.